"In some ways, I could see how it would be easier if it was 'So-and-So and So-and-So', as far as a star and just a band. Sometimes a democracy is slower, and it takes a longer time to come to decisions about stuff, but I think that's part of the reason we've been together so long too because everybody has an equal say in every aspect of the band. We have a lot of the work divided up, but it is definitely a five-piece thing."
A native of the San Francisco Bay area, Ickes now lives in Nashville (the rest of the band lives a few hours away, in the Kingsport, Tenn. area), where he moved in the early '90s to break into not only bluegrass, but establish himself as a session musician. He's been successful on both counts, saying he divides his time more or less equally between session work and his Blue Highway commitments.
Prior to Blue Highway, he gained a reputation as an up-and-coming Dobro prodigy through stints with high-profile acts like the Lynn Morris Band, but the Blue Highway era has elevated him to the level of being spoken of in the same breath with the likes of Mike Auldridge and Jerry Douglas.
"My family played a lot of music when I was a kid. My grandpa played the fiddle, and my grandma played the piano and accordion, and everybody in my grandpa's family plays - lot of fiddle players in my grandpa's family. So it was around me a lot when I was a kid, and I just thought that was normal. I thought everybody's grandpa played the fiddle, and everybody got together once a week and played music because that's what I was used to."
"When I got older, my older brother Pat started playing the banjo, and then we started listening to bluegrass because my grandparents didn't really play bluegrass. Some of the tunes cross over, but they weren't really into bluegrass. (My brother and I) started going to bluegrass festivals, and that's what really got me excited about playing."
"You know how everybody jams around the campfire at night, and that's something that really struck a chord with me. I mean like 'I want to start playing something. This is too fun.' So, on the way back from one of these first festivals I went to, I heard a tape of Mike Auldridge, his first album, and I was like, 'What is that? That is the coolest thing ever,' and I just got infatuated with the sound and have been playing ever since...(that album) hit me in a big way, like a lightning bolt."
Outside of Blue Highway, Ickes has released several solo albums that highlight the side of his musical personality - for which he credits Tony Rice as something of an influence - that leans strongly toward jazz.
"I try to play what fits. I have done a couple of records that delve into the jazz material and a jazz band sort of style, but when I play with Blue Highway, I don't feel like I'm playing jazz. I love jazz, and I just love the sound of the Dobro with drums, piano and saxophone, and I think the Dobro can have sort of an electric guitar kind of sound because you have more sustain that with an acoustic guitar, and that's something that really interests me (as far as) stuff I'm pursuing on the instrument."
As Blue Highway progressed, Ickes found, so did they all, individually.
"When we first started the band, I stuck more to the record, how I played it in the studio, but these days I definitely just try to go for it every time. There are some songs that I feel like I just have to play it this way for it to feel right, but on most of it, I'm trying to take chances because something happens when you're improvising. There's a lot more energy, and your music kind of comes from somewhere else. When you're playing something you already know, you end up kind of thinking about it, and it seems like it just doesn't have the same vitality. So I think (with) our whole band, there's a lot of improvisation going on onstage."
In the end, it's their appeal across the board that Ickes and his comrades appreciate most. "Some people say, 'I like you guys because you're real traditional,' and other people say 'I like you because you're real progressive,' so that's what's fun about it for me, is being able to sort of stretch out, yet it's still a bluegrass band."